Mar 24, 2016

Marketer's Dilemma: Print or online?

Research uncovers where print is most valuable
By Halina Dodd illustrations by Raafia Jessa

If you’re responsible for a marketing budget, you love the Internet. You are no longer restrained by printing cost. Your emails, banners and flyers land directly in front of the customers’ eyes – without the cost and hustle of printing and delivery. Lovely!

And yet, occasionally, we wonder: Would a printed poster get more attention? Might a physical invitation draw a larger crowd? To track the answers, I looked into a growing number of studies on this subject.

In his article, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age”*, author Ferris Jabr sifts through research that compares reading printed text with online reading. The major conclusion:

Printed text = Improved learning

In several studies, students reading pdf files had a more difficult time finding particular information when referencing the texts. Why?

It has to do with the way our brains work.

When we study, our brain maps the written information in a kind of physical landscape. A printed piece provides the physical dimension to help us orient ourselves. There’s the left and right page, proximity to a corner, front versus back, etc. Most of this “landscape” is not available online, as text’s position continuously changes as you scroll, change orientation of your tablet, or change your viewing device – from desktop, to tablet, to mobile.

Then, there’s attitude.

“Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper,” writes Jabr. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for uninterrupted reading time on a couch, without the constant temptations offered by a screen connected to the internet.

What does this mean for a marketer?

Print materials that require prolonged focus: Employee manuals, training instructions, multipage reports and rosters.

Another interesting study was done in 2015 by Temple University** for the US Postal Service. It engaged eye tracking, bio-tracking and MRI to measure the users’ reaction to physical and digital ads. What did they learn?

Paper ads = More memorable

Although participants voiced no preference towards an ad presented digitally or physically, the measurements told a different story.

The digital ads were reviewed more quickly. Since we deal with busy consumers, that’s good news for online advertising!

However, the paper ads showed a few more advantages:

  • Physical ads engaged viewers for longer periods of time.
  • Physical ads caused more activity in brain areas associated with value and desire.
  • A week later, subjects showed greater emotional response and memory for physical ads.

What does this mean for a marketer?

Online and print ads are not created equal, so we cannot simply trade one for the other. The beauty of banner ads is the ability to measure their effectiveness (not tackled in the above study). But if memorability and emotional responses matter (and they always matter), we should leave some budget for that traditional medium.

Finally, a third study surveyed a group of Millennials.

If you’re like me, you associate this generation with a purely digital lifestyle. Indeed, in online interviews with 600 Millennials***, participants like the environmentally-friendly aspect of digital materials. They also find digital pieces easier to track and more up to date.

At the same time, interviewees expressed a strong emotional attachment to paper, finding printed materials more trusted and personal.

Paper materials = More trusted

92% feel paper is more sentimental than electronic.

57% prefer a mailed invitation over an evite.

What does this mean for a marketer?

Invest in printing materials intended to evoke a personal response. Invitations, anniversary publications and thank you notes come to mind.

In conclusion, while we all benefit from the shortcuts offered by the digital world, clearly paper is not ready to retire from marketing. When used judiciously, it can improve understanding, memorability and emotional response.


*Ferris Jabr “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens” for Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican....

** Processing ads – printed and digital - study by Temple University

*** TRU research (2011). Millennial paper usage and attitudes. Paper presented at Paper2011, sponsored by the American Forest & Paper Assn and the National Paper Trade Alliance, March 2011.

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